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Founders are Product Managers, Too

with Jim Semick of ProductPlan
Jan 18, 2017
Back to Podcasts
Founders are Product Managers, Too | 100 PM
Founders are Product Managers, Too | 100 PM

Suzanne: Tell our listeners who you are and what is ProductPlan?

Jim: Sure. My name is Jim Semick. I'm one of the founders of ProductPlan. We do product road map software. It's web-based business management software. ProductPlan is a way of communicating a product manager's strategic product roadmap. We actually sell to thousands of product teams all over the world. We're actually in 50 countries.

Suzanne: Wow.

Jim: We've been in business about four years and things have gone really well for us, because we've really hit a nerve with this problem of being able to communicate a roadmap.

Suzanne: I want to go back for a minute. We're going to talk about ProductPlan, of course, but you spent a lot of time working consultatively for other companies, some pretty large-scale technology companies. You were with Microsoft. You were with Citrix, so in my mind, and I say this as a serial entrepreneur, why leave that cushy consulting role to be a founder?

Jim: Yeah, that's a great question. I have actually been in my career both a consultant. I started my companies and I've been a W-2 employee at different stages. Each one tends to suit a certain stage of my life. The consulting lifestyle is great. I love it. It has a lot of benefits. It has a lot of freedom and flexibility. You have the opportunity of earning a good living, but there are downsides to it.

The downsides are not owning anything at the end of the day. In consulting and having worked as a product manager and new product development for companies, at the end of the day, you're still helping someone else develop their vision and their product. There's quite a bit of satisfaction in that in itself. Being an entrepreneur and starting something of your own, there's nothing like that feeling.

Suzanne: It's a commitment though.

Jim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suzanne: My business partners says this all the time. Starting is easy. Finishing is hard.

Jim: There's a lot of risk that comes with it.

Suzanne: Sure.

Jim: Right? You're obviously spending a lot of time doing this. There's financial risk. There's time away from family and friends. You're spending time with, in my case, a co-founder, and you need to have a fantastic relationship with that co-founder in order for this to work. Luckily we do. We have a terrific relationship.

Suzanne: Did you work together before? I mean, how did you and Greg meet?

Jim: No, we hadn't worked together, but we knew of each other through the tech community here. It's a relatively small entrepreneurial community, and when I was considering doing something, I got together with Greg, and we started talking about some ideas. Then, that led to us at one point deciding to actually do something together. It was a month-long process before we got to that point. We spent a lot of time going on hikes and paddle boarding before we actually made the decision to go into business together.

Suzanne: I think that's the official L.A. way of doing business. I say this a lot about people coming to L.A. which is if you don't yourself have a focus, you can really trick yourself into thinking that you're doing work, because people are always meeting on patios, and looks like work is hot. We took a meeting. We did a hike, something is getting done. You were building the relationship-

Jim: Yeah.

Suzanne: -which is critical to a good partnership.

Jim: It's so essential. It's not as much ... Skill sets and having complementary skill sets, that's important, but I think it's even more important to have a good relationship, shared values, common goals, that's what's important. You can get that information only by spending time with someone and having a beer or going on a hike.

Suzanne: I'm interested. You said that you and Greg spent some time going back and forth and talking about different ideas, which makes it sound like it wasn't that there was this very specific burning idea that you had to bring to life as much as almost a reverse engineering of what would make a great business for us to work on together.

Jim: That's exactly right. We first set out to figure out what kind of business we wanted to start. At the end of the day, how big is this business going to be? Is it going to be a consumer business or a b2b business? What sort of culture do we want to have? Do we want to be funded, or do we want to bootstrap it? What are the roles that we're going to play? How do we fit into that?

We had those conversations before we decided the business to start. We both had a laundry list of potential ideas and went through a validation on those ideas and eventually picked this opportunity of ProductPlan, because it has so much potential.

We spent a lot of time figuring out what, and agreed on, what we wanted to achieve in terms of the business before we started actually developing and writing code.

Suzanne: That's the most pragmatic founder statement I've ever heard of all of-

Jim: Really?

Suzanne: Because usually, it's, "I had an idea, I went headstrong into the idea." The seasoned entrepreneurs realize three quarters of the way down the path all the mistakes they made, but they managed to persevere and course correct and figure something out. Some of them burn out. The irony is it's incredibly pragmatic, and it's really the right way to do it, but it's so anomalous, because most people just kind of ignore pragmatism in service of a billion dollar concept.

Jim: Sure. It's exciting to talk about the billion-dollar concept and to drive forward with that and be very dogmatic and make that happen. The reality is that so many of those billion dollar ideas don't come to fruition for a whole host of reasons. I think our approach to starting the company was influenced by a couple of things. One is that we're both a little more mature. We've both have been in and launched products for a number of years and have done this before.

My experience with the company where I was before ProductPlan and before I was doing consulting was App Folio. This is a large b2b software services company. They went public last year, and the founder had a vision to be the SAP, the big, you know, large SAP company for small and mid-size businesses. That was the vision underlying it. We went through a very structured process to validate different markets that might have an opportunity with that model. I think a lot of what we did at ProductPlan was influenced by that process. We validated a dozen different markets, and eventually chose property management as the initial market but then continued doing validations in other markets to discover opportunity.

It was really about trying to find the right opportunity that had the right market potential, that bad big enough pain where you could find buying customers who had a big enough pain. Sometimes the billion dollar idea is putting the cart before the horse. You might have this fantastic idea that everyone buys off on, including investors, but at the end of the day, can you you really sell that, and is it on a customer's priority list? Is it high enough on their priority list for them to actually write the check or put down their credit card?

Suzanne: Yeah, I mean, I think what we're talking about, you say validation, we're talking about customer development, and you even have this on your resume as an actual title, customer development.

Jim: Right.

Suzanne: Tell us about customer development as you would define it for our listeners who maybe are going, "Customer development, what's that?"

Jim: Yeah, it's actually a structured process that you can use to validate a potential idea. It's basically getting out and talking with potential customers. That's it in a nut shell, but there is a structured process. Steve Blank is one of the gurus of customer development. The process is four different steps. The first one being problem discovery, where you're discovering problems. Then, you have a customer discovery phase, where you're really understanding the customer and their needs. There are a variety of phases you go through with this process.

At the early stage, it's really about discovering problems. It's understanding your customer and a day in the life of your customer trying to really understand their world and how your solution might fit into their world. Then, it's test selling. It's test selling that idea against them. He has a variety of techniques and questions and things like that that help you through that process of customer development.

Suzanne: Yeah, to go back to the pragmatism comment, I'll never forget I had a student of my product management course had her own epiphany around class number three. We were talking about customer development. It sounds like what you're saying is just go out and check if people want this before you build up the whole business and build the product. I'm like, "Yeah, that's what I'm saying." She said, "It sounds so obvious." I said, "Yeah. That's what's so phenomenal about it is it's so obvious. It should be so obvious rather, right?" It's not. I mean, Steve Blank wouldn't have written the book if it were that obvious. He talks about-

Jim: Exactly.

Suzanne: -that it hasn't been obvious for so many entrepreneurs before then, and even still, with so much ... There's so much out there under the umbrella so lean start up, lean thinking, lean management, which is ultimately about reducing waste. The waste of building a product that nobody wants. The waste of spending money trying to figure that out when you could, as it sounds like you and Greg did, just go buy a couple of people a beer and start to dust around and see. I had this vision of you just poking into people's pain a little bit. It's like, "How does that feel? Does that hurt? Okay. Greg, we might be on to something."

Jim: On a scale of one to 10.

Suzanne: Exactly.

Jim: Yeah. Our process was a little more structured than beers, although there were beers involved. We used GoTo Meeting extensively. I used LinkedIn extensively to target potential customers. We created landing pages that people could sign up for a beta version of this forthcoming product. When they did, we would reach out to them and find out what they needed. We interviewed, by the time we started actually writing the software, we had interviewed 60 or 70 people to really thoroughly understand product managers. Both Greg and I have a product manager background.

Those 60 or 70 interviews supplemented our existing knowledge about the market and about the process. It really pointed out the pain that product managers have around product roadmaps. We really understood what they were doing today and how we could fit into that and how we can just do it so much better. The process is ... I agree. It's amazing that more start ups and even more companies, even within larger product management organizations, don't have a process like this where you're engaging with existing customers or potential customers to understand the problems before you start to build something.

We've all been in these organizations before I'm sure where people are sitting around the table. Everyone says, "That's a great idea. Let's do that." Then, it gets implemented.

Suzanne: Right.

Jim: Right?

Suzanne: Right.

Jim: That's where the pivots happen or where features don't get used or products fail.

Suzanne: Yeah, I usually say there's a certain type of validation you should save for your parents. If you just want to be told that you're beautiful, they will tell you. Then, no money will get lost. I appreciate, though, that you were both product managers and yet you still had the discipline to get more feedback. I think the other danger can sometimes be, and maybe to give people who don't know about this discipline more credit, I used to be a broker, so I came up with a great idea for brokers, and that's rooted in understanding the possible pain, but it's still very centered around your experience or maybe one or two complexions of that experience.

It seems that you and Greg could have just as easily, with our own product management background, if you weren't so bought into customer development as a process and said, "We already know product management, and this is the right thing." You still talked to 60 or 70 folks before you-

Jim: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and it's possible that we would have developed the same product. I suspect not. We probably would have had more misses. We may not have charged the right price, or we may not have had the right feature set. We may not have had the right messaging, so the process is so inexpensive. It's really just time. I think it's so integral to the product managers to implement a process like that. I think most product managers, after a while, they understand their domain well enough, and they understand their customer persona well enough that you can start to make some instinctive calls on things.

I think we were at that point too, even though we talked to customers every day for whatever reason. I was on a usability test this morning for example. There are still those new things that are coming out, new features or new services, that still require validation, because you don't really know what the answer is. You can make some gut calls about things, so I think you're reducing risk substantially by using this process.

Suzanne: What is the problem that ProductPlan actually addresses for product managers?

Jim: Yeah, so most product managers, or all product managers, have a roadmap process. They have a roadmap document. It might be a PowerPoint presentation or it might be an excel spreadsheet. There are so many problems just with that. One is that you're typically operating in an archaic format, the PowerPoint presentation. It's this archaic format that requires a lot of time to update, so that's one o the core problems. They will send around this presentation or a pdf, or maybe an excel spreadsheet. Then, the stakeholders, whether that's sales or marketing or operations, or whomever their stakeholders are, they don't know what the latest version of the roadmap is.

They have to look in their email and so on. Maybe it's out on a confluence website, and they're still not sure if it's the latest version. There's that problem. Then, product managers have challenges with getting the right information to the right people. The roadmap that you share with the VP of marketing probably is a little bit different than what you share with the sales team. These require different permutations of the roadmap, so there's that problem. The product manager goes through a regular planning process, and everyone goes about it differently. The prioritization process you use and the method you use is different than the other product manager's.

Then, at the end of the day, the stakeholders aren't getting the right information that they need and the right level of detail either. Then, of course, the poor VP of products is there trying to aggregate all this information together for their regular quarterly planning meetings. It's a little bit of chaos, so that's the problem. That's what we really honed in on during these validation interviews. The product manager, especially during the roadmap presentations, that's their opportunity to shine, and they want it to look good, so they're spending an inordinate amount of time working in these archaic documents trying to make it look good.

The prioritization process that they use, the way they think about prioritizing is different for everyone, so that's what ProductPlan does. We come in and we standardize that process. Our product helps create in a very short amount of time a compelling product roadmap with the right amount of detail. It's easy to share, because it's web-based, and we have a variety of mechanisms to share out that roadmap. Then, we have a features that let you roll up all of these individual product management roadmaps into a single portfolio view that we call the master plan so you can see in a glance what everybody is working on, what the plans are.

This is easy for stakeholders to get. People that with our product, you can easily generate a living roadmap that everyone has access to. Your stakeholders can then get self service access to the roadmap. That's a little bit about the problem that we solve and how we solve it.

Suzanne: The company is a little more than four years old?

Jim: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Suzanne: Do you consider yourselves to be a startup still?

Jim: Yeah, definitely. We're a start up. As I mentioned at the beginning, we're selling to companies all over the world. We're selling to enterprises. We have some just fantastic customers on our roster, including Intuit and Marriott corporation and Alaska Airlines, and so many more. In terms of the stability of the product and security and all these things that are important to enterprises, we definitely are there. In terms of the life cycle of our product and where we are, I really feel that we've just begun. There is so much more for us to do to really fill the vision that we set out initially.

We have a lot of very happy customers, and things are going very well here. We were actually surprised at the market opportunity. It turned out to be quite a big bigger than we expected at the beginning. We thought that the product was focused on software product managers, and it turns out that everyone is, all companies, are a software company to some extent. We have financial services companies like Fidelity. Companies like that are using our product. You don't think of Fidelity as being a software company. You don't think of Marriott corporation as being a software company, but they are. They all have mobile apps. They all have websites. They all have internal systems. All of those require a roadmap. All of those require planning and communicating to stakeholders, so the core vision that we have is helping our customers communicate their strategy more effectively. That's really the vision. There's so much more for us to do in that area.

Suzanne: Right, well, you know, the interesting thing I think about product as a discipline is how it's becoming increasingly integrated. What I mean by that is depending on where you work, of course, to be an effective product manager, you need to understand marketing as well as you need to understand development and software delivery processes. There's becoming more and more integration. The thing that I'm seeing in reverse is that disciplines like marketing for example are starting to take cues from the agile software delivery world and saying, "How can we adopt an agile approach to our department?"

Even if it's a more structured, siloed idea, they're saying, "How can we be there?" Whether you're consciously crossing the chasm or not, perhaps part of what you're seeing is other people saying, "That makes sense. That's a process that serves us."

Jim: Absolutely. We have customers that we ... Tommy Hilfiger for example. Their marketing time uses ProductPlan. This is something that we discovered probably within the first year that we have these other teams, whether it's marketing or UX or operations are starting to use our product for things other than true product management. That's really interesting to us. As a product manager, I'm really curious about that. I really want to understand that. Of course, keep our product focused on the core persona, which are product managers and product owners.

At the same time, just be open to fulfilling other use cases, other jobs to be done that are out there. That's been just fascinating to me to see that unfold.

Suzanne: Well, and I want to add on the same topic of kind of agility and not wasting time and being flexible. The software that you've built really, really promotes that just from a user experience perspective. I mean, Excel can do the job, and I think this is worth saying that you don't always need to have the fancy tools, but if you can afford the fancy tools and ProductPlan's price, I think quite fairly if you can afford to have the right tools, awesome. Man, the time spent refactoring an Excel document versus just dragging a bar and going, "Well, we thought," and because we know, right?

We always think it's three months and it's six months. We always think it's six months and it's a year, so really being able to kind of reflect that change almost instantaneously is powerful. You don't lose time in the reporting gap of ... It's not even just the versioning issue that you mentioned, but actually forgetting to notify everybody that everything is going like this. Being able, I think, to see what it looks like even just playing with it and saying, "What would it look like if we move it out here? Oh, it would look like a conflict. We're trying to launch this product. We're going to be strapped for resources." It brings that visioning, that vision process, really to you.

Jim: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, absolutely. I'm-

Suzanne: That was me applying for a job by the way. How'd I do?

Jim: Fantastic.

Suzanne: Great, okay.

Jim: I'm an advocate of product managers. ProductPlan, we produce a lot of content and articles and a book around product management. We're such advocates around product managers getting out of the weeds and spending time on the things that matter. The thing that matters most is about strategy. That's why I think it's so important for product managers to have tools or products at their disposal that eliminate those weeds, right?

You want to be spending your time engaging with a potential customer to understand their needs rather than updating a PowerPoint presentation or being in a meeting and needing to remember to update the PowerPoint presentation when you get back to your desk. I think that it's a really fantastic time for product managers now. I think there are more products. There's General Assembly. There's great resources for product managers now that weren't there 10 years ago. I think it's a really great time for product managers, but there is so much more for product managers to have to make them more efficient, so many more processes for them to understand like customer development and some of the basics around product management to make them more effective and be more strategic.

Suzanne: Right, and well, the strategic part of product management is the part that separates it from project management.

Jim: Yes.

Suzanne: It's also ... I think I see a lot of people get stuck in the tactical, so again, to go back to the simplicity, which is just to say it's not unlike having personas kind of pinned up beside your desk is just to have that bigger vision in your line of sight so that when you find yourself getting stuck in the micro stuff, right, right down in the trenches, you realize, "Wait a minute, we're losing sight of what's important."

Jim: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and as a product manager, I've been there before. I've been in the situation where I feel like I'm the manager of the back log. I am, but that winds up taking so much time. It's also comfortable too for a lot of people. It's comfortable to be the expert and be the one source of truth for everybody. Then, you have the engineers coming and kind of lining up next to you to get all these answers to their questions. There's some comfort in that too, but I think it's so critical to bring yourself up, right, a level above that.

Suzanne: You talked earlier about coming together with Greg and sort of inventorying the skills and figuring out who does what. How do you negotiate who manages the vision for the product? Is it shared?

Jim: Yeah.

Suzanne: Is it yours?

Jim: Yeah. No, that's a great question, because both Greg and I ... Greg has a computer science degree, but he's not a developer. He hasn't developed for quite awhile, so neither one of us had that coding experience. I think that a lot of start ups out there, there's typically, there's a developer, right, who codes the first version of the product. We didn't have that. Both of us have more of a business background, but Greg is still much more technical than I am. It's naturally kind of evolved where I am more on the customer success and marketing side.

Greg is more on the engineering and product side. That's just kind of how it's evolved. Strategically for the company and where we want to take the company, where we want to take the product, that definitely is shared.

Suzanne: One of the things I think is interesting is the pivotal moment for a founder when they have to relinquish the product management role, right? Product management is visionary. We talk a lot about product managers as being the mini-CEO. A lot of the times, the founders are the product managers. Then there's a point where if you have outside investors, if you've got media, if you've got customers, whatever you've got to do, you've got to kind of go out and be that CEO. That means letting go of some of that.

Do you think that's hard for people? You spent all those hikes coming up with this thing, and then you kind of just have to entrust it to someone else or a small team of somebody elses.

Jim: Yeah. That day will come. It will be hard.

Suzanne: It hasn't come yet. You're holding on.

Jim: Yeah. First of all, it is our baby, right? We know every nuance of this business and the product and our customers. This has been our life, so when the time comes, I think that will be a little bit hard, but at the same time, I've worked with some incredible product managers in the past. I've worked with some people that I don't think I can compare as a product manager to these people. If we can find product managers like that, who are ... I think they'll be hard to find, but if we can find product managers like that, I'll rest easily for sure.

Suzanne: Okay, well, let's go there, because we do a segment here on the show called get the job, learn the job, love the job. I think I saw on LinkedIn you said you're hiring by the way, so why don't you tell us what you think would make a great product manager. When you say find product managers like that, what is that profile?

Jim: Yeah, so I think a fantastic product manager is someone who is curious by nature, someone with a little bit of fire in their belly, someone who has a little bit of an entrepreneurial bend to them, someone who is really comfortable engaging with customers. I think that's a really important characteristic. A lot of product managers come out of the engineering world, and I think to have a little bit of ... Depending on the product of course, to have a little bit of technical side to you, I think that is an important trait. I also think it's really important for product managers to be very disciplined, to be very well organized.

The best product managers that I know aren't these drill sergeant sort of people. They're actually soft spoken, and they know how to let stuff kind of roll off their back. I think that's a really important trait for product managers, because there are so many more things that need to be done in a day that you can possibly get to, so you can't be a frenetic sort of person who's just running around fighting fires all day long. You need to be able to let someone else do certain things. You need to be able to know what is important and what can be dropped. You need to say, "No," a lot, but be very nice about that, right?

The best product managers aren't these authoritarian figures, right? They're usually more soft-spoken than that. At least in my experience.

Suzanne: What advice, then, would you offer somebody, maybe somebody who wants to come work here at ProductPlan, maybe someone who's listening in and thinking, "I think I could be the one to carry the torch through to the next phase." What advice would you offer them to get the job?

Jim: Well, listener, I think the ideal person for us, and this may not be true for other companies, but the ideal person for us would be somebody with that entrepreneurial bent to them. Somebody that maybe has had some entrepreneurial experience, because unlike other companies, other large companies, think of a Fortune 500 company, there aren't unlimited resources. You need to know what the minimum viable feature is, right? You don't have unlimited resources and development time to get something out the door. I think it's really important to have that sort of entrepreneurial experience.

You know what it's like working for a company like ours that's fast moving. We're releasing a new product every two weeks. Things happen very quickly. Decisions are made very quickly. You don't have the luxury sometimes of doing a complete analysis of the situation or of writing up a report…

The other skill that I think is really important is to have production software experience. I think that we're scrum here at ProductPlan, and I think having scrum experience and working in an agile environment is really important. I think there's a certain amount of process that I would expect someone to have to come into a company like this. It may not mean that they had that sort of product management experience before, but at least being in that environment before where you really understand the sprints and that development cycle I think is important.

Those are a couple of the skills that I would hope someone would have. I also would love to have ... The ideal product manager has a good design sense too. We have UX, but everybody here at a company like ours wears a lot of different hats. I would expect a product manager to wear a lot of different hats. Yeah.

Suzanne: That ties back to knowing the role that you want as somebody coming into an organization, because working in a startup environment, there is a certain ... The upside, I think, is you're going to touch a lot of things, so if you're the type of personality that wants to touch a lot of things, you need to go somewhere small where you can be front and center with the founding team touching design, touching the development. By contrast, if you're product manager seven of one product team of 12 product teams in an enterprise environment, you're not doing UX. You're probably not even seeing the roadmap except when you get the link sent to you, and it's not to say one is better than the other, but certainly, as an entrepreneur, and I can see in your face is yeah, we want to touch the stuff. We want to be kind of in it. This may be off to pick but I'm curious. You talked before about the decision to fund or not to fund, but did you guys ever go outside for money, or did you just-

Jim: No.

Suzanne: This is bootstrapped.

Jim: This is bootstrapped. Yeah. It's intentionally bootstrapped. There are so many benefits of bootstrapping. I think the ... Like I said, both Greg and I have been in companies and launched companies and products for a few years, so we have the luxury of being able to take the time and do this validation and make sure that the company is funded and so on. There are so many benefits to us, and there are so many benefits to our customers of this, because we can make decisions based only on what's best for the company and best for the customers. We can not be focused on doing a board presentation.

Instead, we can be talking with customers, so there's so many benefits that you get through bootstrapping. I'm very happy that we made that decision and we continue to make that decision today.

Suzanne: Right. I think you may be too close to it as the founder, but I'm thinking from the employee perspective and from all the new hires that are going to come to you from hearing this that there's a different kind of mindset, I think, baked into when you get a big check from the VC fund and then everybody gets a new mac and the office is amazing, and it's like yeah. It feels really cool, and it looks like what you expect when you think about tech and startups, but then you're out of a job six months later because the money ran out, nobody validated the opportunity. Versus an organization that's bringing constantly a sense of we're doing well, we're hitting our targets, and we're not in the business of burning resources. We're not in the business of just hiring a bunch of people and not having accountability, so it's a different kind of flavor I would imagine. I probably should talk to the-

Jim: Exactly.

Suzanne: -employees, not you, about it. That's my sentiment of hearing you discuss it.

Jim: It's so true. You know, we've all seen these examples of companies that get that check and look successful from the outside. Yet, then shutter their doors suddenly. That is not a measure of success, getting that check is not success in itself. I think a lot of entrepreneurs think that. They think when they get that first check or the checks from angels, for example, that that is success. It's not. It's really, at the end of the day, having happy customers. That fosters successful business.

Suzanne: The other thing that I think it brings up is the importance of retention. You talk about happy customers, right? You're in a business that's subscription based. You not only have to get it right the first time. You have to get it right month over month over month, so that also brings this constant attention to how are we doing? How are we doing now? Are you happy still?

Jim: Yeah, and well, a couple of points about the subscription business is I think that keeps the company on their toes. It should keep a company on their toes, because you essentially have to win that customer over every month. Every time they see their credit card bill come in, you need to know they're happy with your software, and so I think that it is unlike the world of the past where you got a sizable check, and you had a two year commitment and a contract. Then, you could kind of rest on your laurels for that amount of time. I think this, in the end, is beneficial for us and for the customers to have a subscription model.

The other point I wanted to make about a bootstrapped company is that we could not have done this 10 or 15 years ago. The amount of firepower that we have in our software, the capabilities of our software would have taken us ... We would have had to get that check in order to buy the servers, in order to have the engineering talent to make that happen. That's not as necessary anymore. You can still have powerful software and secure software and be able to sell to companies all over the world and be able to do that as a bootstrapped company today. It's a very different world than it was a few years ago.

Suzanne: There's this sort of beautiful connection there, which is, as you described, if you had tried to do this a decade ago or more, you would have had to go outside, because the landscape wasn't set up to enable smaller companies to play. What you're doing at ProductPlan is precisely enabling companies to play in an organized way. It's like you're kind of continuing that narrative, right?

Jim: Yeah.

Suzanne: You give an affordable tool that's web-based that's accessible, and that allows the next start up company, the next start up product company to bake great process right in from the ground and play.

Jim: Exactly. Yeah, and we have some really amazing companies building new products with help, in a way, from our product. I like that. I like the idea of us in a sense kind of being behind the scenes of some really neat things happening in the world. You know, apart from the satisfaction of starting a company and helping the company grow, there's also the satisfactions of product manager and just as a product geek watching all of this happen.

Suzanne: It's all very meta anyways.

Jim: It is very meta.

Suzanne: Product management podcast with product managers building tools for product managers so they can better manage... Okay. What about hard lessons on the job? Either mistakes that you've made personally or things where you have seen product managers struggle or fail because it's harder than it looks.

Jim: Yeah. Well, I definitely have made mistakes. I think that one of the mistakes I made was trying to do too much when building a new product. I learned that lesson at another company. I did not do it here at ProductPlan. I thought I was very much thinking, and we were very much thinking in the MVP mindset. Previously, building software's hard, and especially for a new product. You don't have something that's relative, right? You don't know for this next feature that I'm thinking about how big is that thing going to be? I think that really having a minimum viable product mindset is something that a product manager should really adhere to, especially in new product development.

The other mistake that I have made is trying to actually document all the customer feedback that comes in. I don't know if you've done this-

Suzanne: There's a google doc somewhere that's just hundreds-

Jim: I think it's good to take bullet point takeaways from calls for example, because if you do enough calls, things start to blur, and then you don't really know, so I think it's important to document. I, in the past, have been in the mindset, "Well, how many times have people asked for x?" Now, I've learned that that probably is not the best way to be a product manager. It's not about how many times someone asks for a particular feature, right? One, you don't know the value of that feature, right? How much difference would that feature actually make to someone? That's really the criteria.

It's not the frequency of asking. Then, customers sometimes ... We've heard this before. Customers don't know what they want, and that is so true. They could ask for a particular feature, but there might be a better way of going about it, and that's the product manager's job is to figure out how can we solve that problem in an innovative way and not simply just give them the button that they're asking for.

Suzanne: Right, what's driving the need?

Jim: Exactly, what's the job that has to be done? I think that there's kind of that checklist sort of mentality. I've been guilty of this too. If something occurs enough times, then that gets higher priority, and I now think that's probably not the best way to go about doing it.

Suzanne: Again it brings us back to also part of the vision and saying once you start getting out there and more people start seeing it, everyone's got great ideas for you, so the challenge is learning how to, with a smile, say no and really maintain the focus. What is this or who's it for? As you say, at the very least, remember back to customer development and say, "Let's just stop and ask why this is before we just accept it as true."

Jim: I've been reading a lot about the Kano model-

Suzanne: Yeah.

Jim: -and the idea of having exciter features. These are feature that customers don't know they want, right? I think that product managers are in this unique place. If you just want to be an order taker, you don't need a highly paid product manager to be an order taker. A product manager can think about the future and give customers features that they didn't know they needed. Those are the features that will really differentiate a product.

Suzanne: Well, and talking about Kano model, we've actually got an article about it up on the website is what's important to that, of course, is making sure, "Do I have the baseline features?" This, I think again, goes back to the ideas. Anybody can think of razzmatazz and sparkle. If you have razzmatazz and sparkle, yeah, bring it, because those delighters, those exciter features do sometimes win the race. The do sometimes nudge out the competition, but not in lieu of the essential things I need in order for this to solve my problem.

Jim: Right, you have to have those baseline features just to be competitive at all.

Suzanne: Yeah, so knowing what are those baseline features, knowing what aren't which is part of, I think, minimum viable product is saying just because everybody else has it doesn't make it a baseline feature. What makes it a baseline feature is does it enable the workflow fundamentally? Does it allow us to get the job done? That's, I think, the other distraction is they just released x. They're integrating with this third party. Maybe we should do that.

It's like maybe.

Jim: That doesn't actually tell you anything-

Suzanne: Right.

Jim: -does it? What if their feature that they've had in the product that you think is a baseline feature is used by 5% of their customers?

Suzanne: Right. Exactly. Again, having that confidence, I suppose, and just steer your own ship and not be like ... You got to see what other people are doing, but then you can't let that-

Jim: Exactly.

Suzanne: -let that drive you. What do you love about product? What's your “love the job” sentiment?

Jim: Oh wow, where do I start? I've been in product for over 15 years now, and the thing that thrills me is releasing something that makes a difference in some way in someone's day. When I help launch ... I wrote the product requirements for GoTo My PC, GoTo Meeting. Those are two, I think, for a lot of people, life-changing products. These are products that let them go to their kid's baseball game rather than going to work, right?

These are product that let them avoid an airline flight somewhere. Being a part of those products that make that sort of difference in people's lives is really thrilling or me. Even at App Folio, where we developed property management software, we developed features that let the property managers take their rent payments online and electronically. It sounds simple, right, but that makes a difference in people's lives, because property managers typically don't take the first week of every month off. They can't go on vacation because they have to be there to collect the rent checks.

Well, when we introduced these features and started getting 80+% adoption of electronic payments, now they can go on vacation. That, to me, is exciting that you're able to change someone's personal life that way. I'm not claiming that ProductPlan changes people's lives to that extent, right, but in some way it does.

Suzanne: For sure.

Jim: In some way it helps people maybe make a better presentation to their boss and therefore maybe get a raise? I don't know. Those sorts of things with products are the things that excite me, making a difference.

Suzanne: It doesn't have to be altruism. Great if it is, and great if the thing you're doing is solving a problem at the scale of a several hundred million people recycling desert water and turning it into ... As you suggest, I think if you can help people reinvest their time, reinvest into a proper balance of healthy living, put their energy elsewhere, that is a contribution. I'm with you, but I'm also biased because I'm a productivity software everything. That's my love as well. I'm thinking, "Of course hat's beneficial. We all want to be just a little more efficient and get to the beach, get surfing, etc."

Jim: Right.

Suzanne: What about resources? Any kind of books, blogs, podcasts, things that you think ... You talked about Steve Blank, 'Four Steps to the Epiphany'.

Jim: Yes.

Suzanne: Anything else that you think is kind of essential reading and learning?

Jim: Yeah. I have several books on my list that I really love. One of them is Marty Cagan's book. I think it's called 'Creating Products That Customers Love'. He also writes some really great and thoughtful blog posts. I think that one for software product managers. I think his book is a good one. I think 'The Lean Startup' is another good one. I think that that philosophy, that idea of starting small and iterating from that and learning from that. I think that's an important philosophy.

I think there are a lot of other blogs out there. Ken Norton has a fantastic blog they started awhile back. ProductPlan, we have dozens of articles. In the last year, I think we published about 70+ articles on product management, so is a good resource. We also created a product roadmap book. It's about 70 or 80 pages long that's about the process of thinking strategically, different techniques or prioritizing the product roadmap and actually producing the product roadmap. We have several example product roadmaps in there.

I think as I said earlier, I think now is a great time to be a product manager, because there are some fantastic resources out there for product managers that weren't there previously.

Suzanne: On the topic of resources, there is a very exciting product management organization. I don't know how to describe this. Product Stack L.A.-

Jim: Oh yeah.

Suzanne: -which ProductPlan is a part of. Tell us about, because there is an event coming up here in L.A. January 31st. What is it?

Jim: Yeah, I think that the idea is that it's about planning and measuring and building products, and it is ... The first event is in Los Angeles. I think it's downtown at the General Assembly office. It's basically a meet up, and it is co-sponsored by ProductPlan, by Pivotal, and by Notion. These are products that form this product stack for product managers. It is really about best practices around those areas. It'll be a lot of fun. There's going to be free food and drinks and it's a chance for product managers in the L.A. area to network and learn from other product managers.

Suzanne: You'll be there, and Greg will be there.

Jim: Greg will be there as well.

Suzanne: Okay, so we're going to have to ask him all of the same questions and see if his answers align here.

Jim: Yeah.

Suzanne: No, I'm just kidding. That's awesome. That's January 31. We'll put the details in the show notes. I will be there participating in the conversation with you all. Last question for you, Jim. Is there a personal mantra or quote that you live by? Whether it guides you professionally, guides you personally, guides you both, something that we can put on the wall to remember your legacy? I mean, you're still here and alive and well, but later when you go into the history books-

Jim: Yeah. I think that Steve Blank in particular has been an influence on me. I think his philosophy of getting out of the building is one that I live by. The exact quote is something like, "There are no facts inside the building." It's this idea that you can be inside your own head, or you can be around the executive table making decisions, but that's not the truth. The real truth is out there. That's something that I try to live buy is that well, let's call up a customer and find out from them what they think rather than just assuming we know the answer.

Suzanne: The truth is out there. Do you think the X-files were really just talking about customer development? It was like a whole sci-fi metaphor-

Jim: I just channeled the 90s.

Suzanne: -for ... Yeah. I can't think of a better way to end, so thank you so much for taking the time to be on this show.

Jim: Thank you.

Suzanne: Really appreciate it. We'll see you January 31.

Jim: It was fun. Thanks, Suzanne.

Suzanne: Cool. Thank you.

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